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October 16 2019

American Psychiatric Association Engages Religious Leaders to Address the Climate Crisis

By Rev. Dr. Jim Antal

“The climate emergency demands that we collaborate across disciplines and professions.”

It’s not every day that a minister is asked to address a gathering of psychiatrists, but we have been given the gift of life in extraordinary times, amidst the greatest moral crisis humanity has ever faced, and new coalitions are emerging as the interconnected nature of discrimination and disadvantage of all kinds is affirmed.

Not only do psychiatrists and pastors care about their clients and parishioners, they both care about the mental health of their communities. These concerns were in full force when I joined three psychiatrists to lead a workshop at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in NYC in October 2019.

Rev. Dr. Jim Antal

The climate crisis is already having an impact on the mental health of countless communities. Wildfires in California, floods in the Midwest and Texas, sea-level rise in coastal communities all have a lasting and direct impact on community mental health. In addition, countless young people the world over are struggling to cope with their increasing anxiety that their future has been stolen from them. Furthermore, grief is now a universal blanket covering all of humanity. Every day, the undoing of creation by the actions of 7 generations of humans is evident. As a result, the experience of loss of – and grief for – the earth we once inhabited is universal. (That’s why Bill McKibben titled his book EAARTH – spelled with two A’s.) 

Carrying that burden, we agreed on what the science is telling us: that society must immediately make the greatest transitions humanity has ever managed. First and foremost, we must immediately abandon our dependence on the abundant, inexpensive fossil fuel energy that has built the modern world – replacing it with renewable, sustainable zero-carbon energy sources – and we must carry out this transition in a way that rectifies the massive inequity and inequality that our current distribution of assets represents.

Not only that, but we must also engage additional, equally significant transitions in the areas of:

  • Agriculture and land use;
  • Access to — and use — of fresh water;
  • Accommodation of hundreds of millions of climate refugees;
  • Health threats amplified by heat, flooding, drought;
  • Dietary changes (at least for most Americans); and
  • Economic security, as economic turbulence upends our current economic foundations.

And if there’s one thing both psychiatrists and pastors know for sure, it’s this: people hate change.

And yet, all of these transitions present humanity with the greatest OPPORTUNITY in history. That’s because we now have at our disposal all the technology we need to navigate all of these transitions and more.

I made the case that young people are reshaping the meaning of hope. In contrast to what many of us understand as hope, many young people understand hope as engagement. For them, hope has no connection with optimism and is not focused on a future state of affairs. Hope is manifest right now – which is reminiscent of Jesus’ saying, “The Kingdom of God is in your midst.”

The climate emergency demands that we collaborate across disciplines and professions, and my time with these psychiatrists exemplified this collaboration. I confirmed that pastors should become familiar with the Climate Psychiatry Alliance (https://www.climatepsychiatry.org/ ) which states, “Climate instability is one of the most urgent public health threats of the 21st Century.[1] Mental health is profoundly impacted by the disruptions associated with climate change. Since individuals have only a limited impact, we can be more effective when we join together and amplify our voices and our actions.”

Towards the end of my presentation, I shared with them that a month after President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord in 2017, the national Synod of the United Church of Christ passed a resolution that I wrote declaring that people of faith should resist the construction of all new fossil fuel infrastructure. And then I asked them, “At what point – for each of us – would involvement in or support for civil disobedience be appropriate?”

We had a most fruitful discussion on that and other topics, and I’m confident that collaboration between psychiatrists and pastors in addressing climate change will increase in the months and years ahead.

[1] “Climate Change Is a Public Health Emergency – Here are eight reasons why” by Ploy Achakulwisut Scientific American, January 23, 2019, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/climate-change-is-a-public-health-emergency/?amp

About the Author: Rev. Dr. Jim Antal is the chair of the Blessed Tomorrow Leadership Circle and a renowned climate activist, author, and public theologian. He serves as Special Advisor on Climate Justice to the General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ. To hear more from Rev. Antal, check out our latest webinar, The Moral Imperative to Improve Planetary Health Through Climate Solutions, featuring faith and health leaders discussing the impacts and solutions to climate change.

 

Rev. Dr. Jim Antal

 

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